Behind every great man... Maud MacCarthy and John Foulds’ debt to her

NEIL SORRELL (University of York, 2014)

First of all I should reveal how the archive on which this exhibition is based came north to York from Maud’s beloved southwest. I had been interested in her husband John Foulds through my studies of Indian music and his explorations into its compositional application. Naturally I shared this interest with my students and one of them announced that his housemate was a descendant of Foulds, who updated me on the Foulds-MacCarthy family, which had spread all over the world. By good fortune the nearest to John Foulds and Maud MacCarthy was also living the nearest to York, even if it was Barnstaple in North Devon. He was Major Patrick Foulds, their only son. (Their only daughter, Marybride, died many years previously but shortly before her passing she gave her archive to Malcolm MacDonald which enabled him to write his unsurpassed study of Foulds.) After a quick phone call I arranged to visit Patrick in Barnstaple and was whisked off the few miles to Braunton where his partner, the musician Helen Robinson, lives. She had rescued several boxes of papers that Patrick had wanted to throw away and was storing them in her loft. Until that day no one else knew or cared about their existence. In the couple of days I stayed with Patrick I went through the whole collection and Helen kindly photocopied the items that were most immediately useful to my research. A short while after that Patrick and Helen decided that the archive would be more use in my university than in Helen’s loft or Patrick’s dustbin! I therefore brought the lot, plus a few other memorabilia, including a part of Maud’s broken vina (the instrument she is holding intact in the photo on the exhibition poster), to York and kept them in my office for a couple of years until the Borthwick was ready to house the papers and open them up to a wider readership. Soon after, Helen visited York and saw the archive in all its glory, but Patrick had sadly died shortly before that. We had all met up in London, along with other members of the extended Foulds-Maud MacCarthy clan, for the revival of the World Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall on Armistice Day 2007 and Patrick voiced some wonderful reminiscences of his parents on the BBC.

To summarise Maud’s significance, the John Foulds-Maud MacCarthy partnership is strongly reminiscent of the marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann. Nowadays he is famed as one of the major Romantic composers firmly in the repertoire but when he and Clara married she was more celebrated, as an outstanding concert pianist. Maud had enjoyed a similar reputation: she was a child prodigy and played the violin to crowned heads of Europe before becoming a soloist with some of the leading orchestras of Europe and America. We should not speculate on how her career would have flourished had she not been afflicted with neuritis and that blow led indirectly to the work for which she is being celebrated in this exhibition. Her first trip to India (1908) came long before meeting Foulds (in 1915) and the inception of his own passion for Indian music. She was lured there by two loves: for her brother Charles (who, like so many of her dearest, was to die there) and for Theosophy and her intimate friendship with Annie Besant. It was only natural that she would add music to the list and this is what she championed on her return to England. We may think that Indian music was spearheaded here in the 60s by Ravi Shankar and The Beatles but the fashion can be traced back to the late 18th - early 19th centuries when tunes collected in India were performed in the colonialists’ salons both there and in this country. Maud took things to a new level by delivering lecture-demonstrations around the country. By all accounts (including newspaper cuttings and letters from the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and AH Fox Strangways, a leading musicologist and authority of Indian music) they were very well received. Maud took up causes with her usual fiery determination and they were later espoused by Foulds and even more associated with him, though he did acknowledge her part, to the extent of admitting that almost everything he had learnt about Indian music had come from her. It was only in the last four years of his life that he was able to study the music at first hand and put some of his ideas into practice, in India itself. By that time Maud had moved on to various social projects and handicraft enterprises, which were quite in keeping with the ideals of Gandhi, and for most of this period husband and wife lived apart. Foulds, at All India Radio, New Delhi, was allowed to experiment with the ideals about which Maud had written and lectured a quarter of a century earlier. He created and composed for an Indo-European orchestra, mixing Indian and Western instrument and styles, which in many ways prefigured the Vadya Vrind radio ensemble established in the early 50s by Ravi Shankar. He developed a system of modal composition (actually before getting to India) based on the Indian ragas and, again, on what he had learnt from Maud, who had also foreseen this musical development. Perhaps most notoriously, he is (wrongly) credited with getting the harmonium banned from All India Radio (a highly controversial state of affairs which lasted for over 30 years). Maud had railed against this Western import in lectures and articles 30 years before the ban actually came into force. She was joined by Foulds and other influential purists who thought the instrument was like some weed that was spreading out of control and killing the delicate blooms of ancient Indian music. Foulds nicknamed the offending box ‘harm-omnium’ and certainly campaigned to have it banned, though it could not have been in his remit actually to authorise the ban. The problem was that keeping it off the radio did not check its wider popularity and by the early 70s AIR conceded defeat and the harmonium is still going strong.

Foulds died suddenly in 1939 within days of contracting cholera in Calcutta. Equally tragic is the fact that nearly all his output from that period has been lost or destroyed. Maud saw off her third husband, also in India, before returning to England to live out the last decade of her eventful and colourful life. Her true legacy is only coming to light through this archive. Perhaps she was too much of a polymath, taking up one cause after another with a zeal that made being with her, in the words of her son Patrick, like living on the edge of a volcano. She was not afraid of controversy, even ridicule. Her ‘phono-therapy’ (in some ways foreshadowing the highly respected practices of music therapy) attracted accusations of quackery in the press, while her infatuation with the ‘seer-stoker’ (East End labourer-cum-medium) who became her third husband and spiritual guide not only led to the family’s move to India in 1935 but also placed a considerable strain on her other relationships, not least with Patrick, who told me that he just yearned for a normal life—something that could definitely not be expected from Maud MacCarthy! When Foulds started to gain some recognition around 20 years ago, through inclusion in the BBC Proms and other high-profile concerts and the release of a couple of acclaimed CDs (sadly it is a small number and the recognition has come in fits and starts rather than being truly sustained) one thing that most commentators seemed to agree upon was that his music was boldly ahead of it time. If we remember that the driving force behind so much of it was Maud MacCarthy, who was 20 years ahead even of Foulds, we begin to get a clearer picture of her musical influence.